WHEN Jack Harrison took to the field for England Under-21s at Middlesbrough last Friday night, one of the loudest cheers will have come from his old mates at Walshaw Sports FC and Radcliffe Cricket Club.

All the talk ahead of the Euro 2019 qualifier against Scotland was of the 20-year-old’s back story – his decision to leave Manchester United’s academy behind, aged 14, to take up a football scholarship in America.

The move has since paid off, with Harrison catching the eye of U21s boss Aidy Boothroyd following some high-profile displays for Major League Soccer side New York City FC.

He was suddenly put under the spotlight of the national media, who highlighted the Harrison family’s move from Stoke, when he was a toddler, to Bolton, where he went to Turton High School.

But as a youngster, Jack’s sporting talent was nurtured in the Bury area, playing cricket for Radcliffe and football for Walshaw Sports.

Harry Dearden, who is now a professional cricketer at Leicestershire, was in the same Walshaw team as Jack and the two have remained good friends.

“Jack was always head and shoulders above everyone else on the park,” remembered Dearden, who moved from the Lancashire academy two years ago to sign pro terms with Leicestershire.

“It was obvious he was going to be a very good footballer.

“We probably started playing together when we were six or seven and were in the same team for about two to three years.

“Everyone was in awe of him because he made us all look stupid.

“We all wanted to be as good as him, but we couldn’t do the things he could.

“He would get the ball and just dribble past everyone – he was so fast and so strong.

“The funny thing was we had plenty of good players in the team. Chris Wood ended up being picked up by the Bolton Wanderers academy and quite a few of the lads had trials at pro clubs.

“So we used to thrash teams 13 or 14-0, but it was always Jack that scored most of the goals.”

While Harrison’s skills were obvious, it was his attitude and drive that really set him apart, recalls Dearden.

“Most of the lads dreamed of becoming a footballer, like you do, but he took it to another level. He was football mad,” said the 20-year-old. “For me, I loved football but I always knew I would probably be better at cricket. I know Jack played cricket too, but there was no question about what he wanted to do.

“His decision to go to America really impressed me.

“I know a bit of what it takes to become a professional sportsman. You have to make sacrifices.

“The hardest thing as a teenager is to go to bed early on a Friday night when all your mates are going out.

“But you have to make these choices and stick to them.

“I left home recently to give it a shot with Leicestershire, but Jack was only 14.

“I know leaving Manchester United was a really big thing for him, but to also leave his family behind – that was a massive step to take and all the lads are really proud of him for having the guts to do it.

“A gang of us from that team still keep in touch. I last spoke with Jack maybe six months ago and some of the lads have also stayed in touch with his family.

“We all talk about him when we get together, about the goals he has scored or matches he has played over in New York. It is great to see his big move has paid off. To get the England call-up is like the cherry on the top. It is amazing, at any level.”

Harrison was only given a brief taste of international football on his debut, replacing Tammy Abraham for the final two minutes of England’s 3-1 win against Scotland.

He clearly enjoyed it, tweeting after the game: “Proud to have made my debut for the #YoungLions tonight. Thank you @england for giving me this opportunity, it was an honour! Most importantly, great result for us, now on to Andorra.”

And he followed it up on Tuesday night with his first start for his country in a 1-0 win away to Andorra as England took control at the top of Group Four.